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What will Cisco's AON mean for Web services?

This column examines the implications of Cisco's application-oriented networking (AON) architecture and what the technology means for Web services architects and network managers.

Within the last few weeks Cisco released its next-generation networking architecture, application-oriented networking (AON), and although Cisco didn't play up the Web services angle during the announcement, XML, and therefore Web services, are at the heart of the new technology.

What does AON really mean for the present and future of Web services? And is there any real meat to the Cisco announcement? That's what we'll look at in a two-part column, which kicks off this week.

What is AON?

To understand how AON may affect the future of Web services, you first need a basic understanding of what it is. AON will embed what Cisco terms "intelligent application message routing" right into the network itself, in essence burned into the hardware. This means that network hardware will include intelligence that will be application-aware, and will be able to work on a message or application level, rather than on a packet level, the way it currently does.

Why should this matter? It may matter a great deal, because with the network speaking the language of applications it will, in theory, be able to accelerate applications, provide better security and allow the network itself to make decisions about how to route and handle messages and applications. In theory, this could potentially mean much simpler and easier-to-manage networks and applications, because currently many hardware and software layers are involved in this kind of routing. If Cisco's plan works, all those layers could go away. The network itself would do the work.

The announcement wasn't made by Cisco alone. It lined up some pretty heavy-duty partners as well, including IBM, SAP AG, Actional Corp., Tibco Software Inc. and VeriSign Inc. Cisco hardware, in theory, will work in concert with software from those companies to handle application-level traffic.

The actual hardware hasn't been released yet, although it is being beta tested. The first modules to roll out will be integrated as blades into various Cisco routers and switches. The Cisco Catalyst 6500 Series Application-Oriented Networking Module and the Cisco 2600/2800/3700/3800 Series Application-Oriented Networking Module should be available by the end of the year. Cisco will ship a standalone appliance version of AON products by the end of the year as well. Pricing isn't yet available.

Where do XML and Web services fit in?

Where does Web services fit in? Right at the heart of things. When Cisco talks about messaging, what they're really talking about is XML. That means making the network XML-aware and having it be able to understand and parse XML. And because XML traffic forms the basis for Web services, it's really talking about the network being Web services-aware. That's also why the Cisco partnership is with Tibco and IBM, particularly for IBM WebSphere.

Embedding XML-awareness may sound revolutionary, but according to a number of analysts, it's nothing new. In fact, it's already been done quite a bit already.

Randy Heffner, Vice President in Forrester's Application Development & Infrastructure research group, notes that a number of different vendors, including DataPower and Sarvega, already sell XML-aware hardware. In fact, XML-acceleration appliances and XML hardware security devices are becoming increasingly popular. That's no doubt one reason that Cisco has moved on AON -- it sees a market opportunity and a market that has already been validated by smaller players. This means that the XML appliance industry is ripe for the networking giant to move in.

Frank Dzubek, president of Communications Network Architects, an analyst firm in Washington, D.C, adds that "at the moment all Cisco is doing is some XML acceleration and some application-specific acceleration," which he notes, is not particularly groundbreaking.

But Jon Oltsik, senior analyst for information security at Enterprise Strategy Group, believes that the announcement is potentially important because "it puts Cisco in the game of trying to champion the network as an important piece of Web services infrastructure." He adds, though, that "AON is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It's just adding more functionality to the network…you're adding more intelligence towards the top of the network stack."

What does it all mean?

Considering that the hardware isn't yet even publicly available, it's still a little early to truly understand what AON will mean for the future of Web services and for Web services architects and network managers. But already there are clear implications and some potential pitfalls as well.

The possible benefits are fairly obvious -- an intelligent network that accelerates Web services applications, provides Quality of Service, security and authentication, and makes networks and applications easier and less expensive to maintain. At first, it sounds like a slam-dunk.

But there are many questions that remain, and so it's still unclear how useful AON will be, and how it will work in the real world. For example, is it enough for a network to be XML-aware? Won't it have to be aware of specific Web services applications, not just XML, if it's going to accelerate and handle applications? And will Web services applications themselves have to be written specifically to Cisco hardware? How will AON affect Web services standards? Will there have to be a whole new class of them?

These are just a few of the questions I'll cover in my next column.

About the Author

Preston Gralla is an expert on Web services and the author of more than 30 books, including How the Internet Works. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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